Russell Westbrook and James Harden each dropped 22 points in the Rockets’ preseason victory over the Raptors in Saitama, Japan. In the postgame presser, CNN’s Christina Macfarlane asked a question of the two players:
The NBA has always been a league that prides itself on its players and its coaches being able to speak out openly about political and societal affairs. I just wonder after the events of this week and the fallout we’ve seen, whether you would both feel differently about speaking out in that way in the future.
A flack off-screen can be heard urging “basketball questions only” and telling Macfarlane that “it’s been answered.” Macfarlane insists that her question is a new wrinkle on the topic of the week, but is met with silence. The conference moves on and Westbrook fields a question about his relationship to Japan.
To reiterate: This game didn’t even take place in China.
Both the NBA and the Houston Rockets specifically have some potential financial incentive to quash this question. Only the league, however, is run by a commissioner who said earlier this week that the NBA “will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way.” It’s since been reported that the directive came from a Rockets employee, who the NBA said in a statement acted “inappropriately”:
During today’s Houston Rockets media availability, a team representative inappropriately interjected to prevent CNN’s Christina Macfarlane from receiving an answer to her question. We’ve apologized to Ms. Macfarlane as this was inconsistent with how the NBA conducts media events.
It’s entirely possible that Harden was relieved to see the question deflected. Earlier this week, Harden delivered a stilted message of apology to China as a whole. “We apologize, we love China, we love playing here,” Harden said, as Westbrook nodded in the background. “We love everything they’re about, and we appreciate the support they give us, individually, and as an organization. We love you.”
While the silencing at the press conference may have been Rockets-specific, today’s preseason games offered some clear-cut evidence of the league’s stance towards free expression. Across the East China Sea, in Shanghai, the Lakers lost to the Nets. LeBron James is one of the few living athletes who can effectively bend his sport with his words. He has shared his political beliefs in the past. He’s also the face of one of the league’s biggest franchises, and one of its biggest apparel producers. It would’ve been fascinating to hear what he had to say—at least as a window into his personal risk-reward calculus, if nothing else. But the NBA cancelled all media availability for today’s China games. James was not going to be placed in front of a microphone; the fans showered him with chants of “MVP” during the first quarter.
From ESPN’s Dave McMenamin:
Approximately 3 1/2 hours before tipoff, an NBA spokesman informed reporters there would be no media availability of any kind for either team and that commissioner Adam Silver’s previously scheduled pregame news conference was canceled.
The stipulation, sources said, was at the behest of the Chinese government, which also had a hand in canceling two NBA Cares events, an NBA 2K League logo unveiling and a fan appreciation event in the days leading up to the game, causing many to question if the Lakers and Nets would make the lengthy trek and never even get a chance to face one another.
Perhaps what the Rockets representative did was “inconsistent with how the NBA conducts media events,” but it seems all those problems can be solved by doing away with those events entirely.